‘Arise My Love’ by Helen Martin

Image: Helen Martin, Arise, my love, 2011, sugarlift etch, intaglio print, 38 x 56 cm USED WITH PERMISSION

My beloved speaks and says to me:
“Arise, my love, my beautiful one,
and come away,
for behold, the winter is past;
the rain is over and gone.
The flowers appear on the earth,
the time of singing has come,
and the voice of the turtledove
is heard in our land.
The fig tree ripens its figs,
and the vines are in blossom;
they give forth fragrance.
Arise, my love, my beautiful one,
and come away.
Song of Songs 2:10-13 (CEV)

What is Love?  How do our expectations and definitions of Love stymy it and limit our experience of Being Loved?

These are the questions which arise from Helen Martin’s recent exhibition of work which ‘exegetes’ the Song of Songs.  The work included paintings and prints which were images of the indigenous landscape in which Helen lives: a deeply spiritual place that has a mysterious capacity for spiritual renewal and nurture of the heart, mind, strength and body.

Helen spent a year contemplating this enigmatic book of the bible in preparation for her artworks, understanding the texts in their original format and how they have been read through-out the centuries.  She commented to me that her desire was to rescue the text from limited interpretations of a relationship between a man and woman.  The poetry unashamedly uses romantic and erotic imagery to describe the mystical experience of Love.  A transformative, transcending encounter evoking the entirety of humanity and divinity.

Why has the church so often interpreted this poetry as a description of Almighty God and God’s special Chosen Ones?  Is it just because as an institution we have been so uncomfortable with sexuality that we have needed to avoided such earthly engagement and redirect attention away from the body?  Undoubtedly that has sometimes been the case but there it is also a legitimate depiction of the human-divine encounter.

Christian mystics have often drawn upon the Song of Songs to describe their own intimate relationship with God.  For example, the Song of Songs was the favourite book of the bible of St John of the Cross. He rewrote his own version of it and mimicked the erotic style in others of his poem-prayers.  He also opted to make the final journey from life to death accompanied by the recitation of the Song of Songs, as opposed to liturgical usual prayers for the dying.  For St John of the Cross, they perfectly described his experience of divine love.

So, how wonderful that Helen is challenging our preconceptions of the way we read Song of Songs and questioning our assumptions about pathways to encountering Divine Love.  Do we not frequently find a stirring in our souls when we are surrounded by natural beauty?  When the wind is blowing through our veins and the sun dragging out the melatonin?  Another famous mystic, Hildegard von Bingen, took ecstatic delight in nature and sang God’s praises for every leaf and flower.

In the recent Spirituality of Love course which I led at Solace, we talked about Divine Love being like a rainbow; all the colours combining to create something wonderful, ecstatically beautiful, magically.  Human Love comes in individual colours of the rainbow – red might represent Romantic Love, magenta might represent Parental Love, green might represent the Love of/by Nature, and so on.  The individual colours provide a glimpse, and ultimately a pathway, into experience of the Divine.  Arise My Love is a special piece of Ecstatic Love is printed in deep ink blue which, incidentally, is the colour of the gown Demeter is sometimes depicted wearing in ancient mythology – Demeter was a goddess of the earth, known for her gracious generosity!

This print is special for me personally in another mystical, magical way of  Love – through the divine gift of female friendship.  I had been raving about Helen’s exhibition for weeks and lamented to a girlfriend the impossibility of me purchasing my favourite piece – Arise My Love.  Cath sneakily sent word around to Liv, Sarah, Maggie, Barb, Chris & Clare (only half of whom she had ever met) and together they purchased the print for me as ‘an early birthday present’!  In recent years, these women friends have embodied Divine Love me as they have sat through floods of tears, listened to hours of self-indulged lament, and urged me onwards and upwards towards peace and happiness.  Just another colour of God’s Love refracted in spectacular light into my humble life.

You can find out more about Helen here, through her blog.  Her next project is going to be on ‘road trips’!

Holy Week: Being-in-love with God

Amidst all of the possible thought trails to pursue in Holy Week, it is The Liturgy of the Bridegroom that continues to grab my attention.  In particular, I have been mindful of the great burden of broken love which human beings almost universally share and the wonderful, therapeutic opportunity to confront that loss and pain as we turn our eyes towards the Cross of Christ.

Hence, I’ve decided to share the final of four sermons which I recently delivered at Southern Cross Ministries, a contemporary/charismatic Anglican Church in Melbourne.  Theme of the sermons, Being-in-love with Jesus, is taken from Bernard Lonergan’s epistemology of conversion and knowing, and is material that I will continue to develop for 2 other (very different) contexts this year.  Not only is it the result of intense theological reflection from the past year, it is the result of three and a half years of hard living and an awful lot of prayer.

A sermon in response to Song of Songs 2:1 – 3:5

Romance as the Pathological Religion of Western Culture

The psychology of love is a massive cultural phenomena in our Western. It is, in fact, one of the things non-Western cultures criticise us for. It is our obsession; our pathology; and our replacement for religion in a secular age. As our culture moved away from seeking meaning in religious notions of transcendence, we projected those spiritual needs onto our human relationships. Romance has become our religion.

A case in point: I saw the movie Any Questions for Ben? when it came out last month. Poor Ben is going through a quarter life crisis: he feels cut adrift, lost, yearning for something more and for his life to ‘mean something.’ So does he turn to religion, spirituality or even psychotherapy? No, he turns to love! He finds it within himself to commit to one woman and trusts in that relationship to satisfy these inadequacies he feels.

There is a pressing need to address the unrealistic expectations on intimate human relationships of all kinds – parental, romantic, platonic, etc. And whilst I am going to be focusing on romance today, much of it can be transferred to others whom we are close to, and especially to our mothers and fathers.

If we seek ‘god’ in a human person we will always be disappointed. But more subtlety, if we seek the source for our own personal transformation in another person, we too easily fail to integrate any fleeting transcendence within ourselves. It is not that God is absent from human relationships, indeed, frequently we experience the wonderful grace of God in our intimate relationships, but the source of God is not located solely within them as the object of our affection. It is a glimpse of heaven, but we live here and now on earth.

Robert Johnson is a Jungian therapist who has written on this issue:

“…What we seek constantly in romantic love is not human love or human relationship alone; we also seek a religious experience, a vision of wholeness. Here is the meaning of the magic, the sorcery, the supernatural in the love potion. There is another world that is outside the vision of our ego-minds: It is the realm of psyche, the realm of unconscious. It is there that our souls and our spirits live, for unknown to our conscious Western minds, our souls and spirits are psychological realities, and they live on in our psyches without our knowledge. And it is there, in the unconscious, that God lives, whoever God may be for us as individuals.”


Mystical romantic Love

When I first read the song of songs as teenager, I really could make no sense of it. The unfamiliar imagery and the mysterious whisper or sometimes snigger, that seemed to accompany its mention. I was taught that there was a huge debate about this book of the bible. Some say this is a book about a man and a woman, so its a book about marriage and about the sanctity of marriage. Others say that it is an allegorical book about loving God, and the mystical experience of knowing Jesus in the thrill of the holy spirit. I have no doubt in my mind now that it is both. And the reason that it is both is because, in the words of Richard Rohr, the way we love anything, is the way we love everything.
I have a friend who used the Song of Songs as the basis for a major art project last year. I greatly anticipated the artwork for many months, for she is a beautiful and skilled artist, and she was trying a new technique with ink. When she shared the finishe product I was surprised and taken aback. She created a book with selected words from Song of Songs on one side, and images of indigenous shrub on the other. It is a comment on the Love of God that we can discover through nature!

St John of the Cross was a sixteenth century mystic, who wrote his own love poetry to God, some of which was directly modelled on the Song of Songs, with the voice of the bride and then the bridegroom taking it in turns to declare their experience of love. He found such spiritual nourishment in the Song of Songs that when he was dying, he requested the priest read from the book of Song of Songs, unstead of the usual prayers for the dying. This John once urged a younger Christian, “Enter within yourself and work in the presence of your Bridegroom, who is ever present loving you.”

He is picking up on Ephesians chapter 5 of course, where St Paul describes the relationship between Christ and the Church as Bridegroom and Bride. We must be careful to always remember that in Paul’s meaning each of us as individuals are only a part of the Bride, Christ is ours by virtue of us being one with one another, but this language of bride and bridegroom is not uncommon amongsts spiritual writers across the ages. Singing love songs to Jesus is not new and by no means exclusive to the contemporary charismatic worship movement!

In a sermon on Loving God, Rowan Williams remembers a story about St John of the Cross and wonders, do any of us love God so intimately?

“When St John of the Cross was staying at a convent over Chrismas, one of the sisters saw him, when he thought no one was looking, picking up the figure of the child Jesus from the crib. He hugged it close to his chest and then, with eyes closed, danced around the crib for a few minutes. Well, that, it seems, is love of God: a devotion that makes people more than a little dotty, that produces an all-pervading warmth and delight, an incommunicable gladness beyond all words. ‘My beloved is mine and I am his.’”
Is this kind of crazy love just a personality thing? Some of us are more emotional than others and they are the one’s who have this kind of relationship with God in prayer? St John of the Cross entered into his great love affair with God when he was kidnapped and imprisoned. The Dark Night of the Soul was literally for him, 9 long months in a dark, damp, medievil cell. Upon his escape he began to write poetry of what had happened in the darkness, the breaking through of light and love as he cast himself entirely on God.

Spiritual writers describe love and suffering as the two great doorways into knowledge of God. Both are experiences which wrench our hands off the steering wheel; bind our fate to the whims of another; shame us into knowledge of our own powerlessness. Hence, it should be no surprise that the darkest moments of our lives have a unique capacity to throw us into the arms of God.

Rowan William’s deals with the relationship between this mystical love with St John of the Cross describes, and other more rational forms of love: love is a decision, love is a choice, love is a set of actions putting the other person first. Yes, love is all that but the Song of Songs and the saints who pray them, reveal to us the possibility of more. And then he gives some great advice:

“If the ‘love of God’ means nothing to you…, then love the lovers of God. Love the love of God in Francis or John of the Cross, Dick Sheppard or Mother Theresa, Aelred of Rievaulx or Charles de Foucauld. To love love-in-someone is, by the courtesy of heaven, to love love and so to love God. It is to turn our eyes toward, to choose and desire the truth of all truth, the beauty of all beauty. It is to look and hope in and love and serve and know the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, from whom and for whom everything in heaven and earth exists, even the cold, flabby, and fantasy-ridden hearts of human beings.”


The agony of falling-in-love

There was a bigger reason why I struggled with song of songs as a teenager, beyond knowing what this mystical sort of love was. Really, I just didn’t didn’t have enough life under my belt to really get it. Maybe, and this is a hint for some of the young people here this morning, maybe if I’d had The Message version I would have cottoned on a little sooner. The bride’s dream at the start of chapter 3, Eugene Peterson translates:

“Restless in bed and sleepless through the night, I longed for my lover. I wanted him desperately. He absence was painful.”
At age 15, I knew not enough about falling in love to grasp the deep longing and great confusion of feeling within the text. Listen to the repeated refrain:

“Daughters of Jerusalem, do not awaken love until it is ready!”
In recent years I have found myself often repeating a little mantra to myself: “it is possible to feel two very different things at once.” Intense passionate love is like that. In fact, Robert Johnson would say, suffering is an essential ingredient in romantic passion. It is agony to awaken desire for a lover with whom we are not able to share a bed – whether that is for practical or moral reasons, temporary or permanent. Now, when I read the text I feel the complexity of love! At once joyous and burdensome.


Love’s work

Gillian Rose has been one of my greatest delights in the past year. She is a contemporary philosopher who wrote a book in 1997 while she was dying, called ‘Love’s work”. In it, she describes “unhappy love”. Human love which is bound to be thwarted in this life – be it because it is unrequited, the object of our affection does not share the same passion for us, even when maybe they once did – or maybe the man/woman of your dreams just is nowhere to be found! Unhappy love includes all those cases which are deemed immoral or socially impossible – to be married and in love with someone who is not our spouse, or to be in love with someone who is too young for us, or considered inappropriate in some way; it is not uncommon to be strongly attracted to our teacher, our boss, our doctor, our priest: none of which are appropriate relationships to pursue. Finally, unhappy love can be purely because of impracticalities – they live on the other side of the world, you meet at the wrong time, or , in the worst possible circumstances, one’s Beloved has passed away and you are seperated by death!

In any of these relationships, unhappy love is the passion of loss. And interesting in the Song of Songs story, the woman is searching the streets for her Lost Lover. Romantic love, at its heart, is about the desperate human search for love! Some pyschologists like to ham up the idea of falling-in-love as addiction or an illness, but maybe, in one way, falling-in-love is a sign of good health! When a healthy body requires food we experience hunger pains: could not love pains be a function of a healthy soul telling us what we need? In which case, falling-in-love can be processed as a spiritual discipline: the soul’s prescribed remedy for deconstructing the immature ego and unearthing the true self. A drive to reclaim the perfection of Love as it was first known in pre-human form. Hence, Gillian Rose writes, unhappy love initiates an investigation into lovelessness. We come face to face with the epic journey to recover our sense of Beloved-ness.


Created from Love

The Love of God is woven beautifully into all God’s creatures. And what I have tried to describe in my previous sermons is an insight from the Dominican spiritual writer Sebastian Moore. Our desire for another, is triggered by a deep memory of ourselves as desirable. Some look or word from whatever archetypal man, woman or child is required to grabs our psychic attention, and we rediscover the Love out of which we were formed, as the Psalmist has said, I loved you in your mother’s womb, you are fearfully and wonderfully made.

The way we love anything, is the way we love everything. The different types of love that we experience – for brother, for friend, for children and parents, for our heros, for our Lovers, for our enemies, all Love comes from the one source: God. And God, who IS love, has poured God’s own love for us into our hearts by the holy spirit. So the very source of all Love is within us, buried deep within our foundation as human persons, but released by life as we encounter love and discover ourselves to be Beloved in the eyes of others, starting of course, with our mothers, even before we sense the cool of a breeze on our cheeks. This is Sebastian Moore’s point, the person who awakens love in us, merely throws aside the veil, and we unearth the fountain of love from which we were created by God.

If we do not seek God within us, the love that is available in God stays distant, stays apart from us, it cannot change us in the same way when we keep it at arms distance. We must know it within ourselves if we are to survive the trials of human love.


Encouragement for sufferers of Unhappy Love

To close, let me speak to those whose heart is breaking right now, from unhappy love.
Let me say to you: this is normal. This is not nice, but this is normal. This is what human love is like. And even when you are in a relationship that is more happy than unhappy, there are still moments when the people we love let us down.

I have a close friend who is married, I am not. We have journeyed together through the unhappy love of our different circumstances and what we have discovered is that our pathways are the same: the way forward, towards happiness, is only through the discovery and determined depenence upon the love that is within ourselves. The love we seek, the love we all seek, is already inside you. It has been inside you since birth. The one who has awakened love in you is but a beautiful mirror, reflecting the Divine Love of Creation in your very Being. Set your heart on the higher goal, search for the source of all love, and you find what you so desperately seek in a mere mortal.

Let me also speak to those whose struggle is not so much lost love but betrayed love, the same is true. Seek the higher love, and you will find the source of forgiveness, grace, and justice, that will get you through. Mere human love does not have the capacity to love one’s enemies. You will need divine love for that. But that divine love is written into your inmost Being – Jesus can show you how to find it.

Finally, let me speak to those of you who are on the other side; who have been the cause of unhappiness in Love. Let me say to you, Falling in love is not wrong, it is not even stupid! But it is not always healthy, and it is not always right to pursue it in an outward relationship. Don’t fall for the lie that passion is all there is. There is a higher love, and that love calls us to a higher law. This higher Love is not a disciplinarian, but will reward you richly for choosing to invest in it. Jesus said even he who looks upon another woman lustfully is guilty of adultery! How on earth can we survive that kind of temptation? Self-discipline definitely has it’s place, but you will never chain up your mind entirely. So, you need a greater love. You need a superhuman love! And you need to know that love has forgiven you at your most undeserving.

So, start a journal, sign up for counselling, go on a silent retreat, take an art class, walk in the rain, buy a pet: but turn inwards, and let go of the person you think will make you happy. God has already given you what you think you want, look for it within yourself.

Sharing these kinds of thoughts with a friend recently, she put me on to this beautiful hymn which I’d never heard.

Geoff Mattheson, O Love that will not let me go.

1.   O Love that wilt not let me go,  
I rest my weary soul in thee;  
I give thee back the life I owe,
  That in thine ocean depths its flow,  
May richer, fuller be.
2.   O light that foll’west all my way,  
I yield my flick’ring torch to thee;
  My heart restores its borrowed ray,
  That in thy sunshine’s blaze its day, 
 May brighter, fairer be.
3.   O Joy that seekest me through pain,  
I cannot close my heart to thee;
  I trace the rainbow through the rain,  
And feel the promise is not vain,
  That morn shall tearless be.
4.   O Cross that liftest up my head,
  I dare not ask to fly from thee;
  I lay in dust life’s glory dead,
  And from the ground there blossoms red, 
 Life that shall endless be.